Give Us This Day
The Berlin Ending
East of Farewell
Limit of Darkness
Stranger in Town
A Foreign Affair
I Came to Kill
Be My Victim
End of a Stripper
A Gift for Gomala
Where Murder Waits
Compulsive Spy: The Strange Career of E. Howard Hunt
An Assassin’s Diary
From December 7, 1941, to August 15, 1973, the United States has been continuously at war except for a brief, too little celebrated interregnum. Between 1945 and 1950 the empire turned its attention to peaceful pursuits and enjoyed something of a golden or at least for us not too brazen an age. The arts in particular flourished. Each week new genius was revealed by the press; and old genius decently buried. Among the new novelists of that far-off time were Truman Capote (today a much loved television performer) and myself. Although we were coevals (a word that the late William Faulkner thought meant evil at the same time as), we were unlike: Capote looked upon the gorgeous Speed Lamkin as a true tiger in the Capotean garden where I saw mere lambkin astray in my devouring jungle.
The one thing that Capote and I did have in common was a need for money. And so each of us applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for a grant; and each was turned down. Shocked, we compared notes. Studied the list of those who had received grants. “Will you just look,” moaned Truman, “at those ahh-full pee-pull they keep giving muh-nee to!” Except for the admirable Carson McCullers who got so many grants in her day that she was known as the conductress on the gravy train, the list of honored writers was not to our minds distinguished. Typical of the sort of novelist the Guggenheims preferred to Capote and me in 1946 was twenty-eight-year-old (practically middle-aged) Howard Hunt, author of East of Farewell (Random House, 1943); a novel described by the publishers as “probably the first novel about this war by an American who actually helped fight it.” The blurb is unusually excited. Apparently, H.H. “grew up like any other American boy” (no tap-dancing on a river boat for him) “going to public schools and to college (Brown University, where he studied under I.J. Kapstein).”
A clue. I slip into reverie. Kapstein will prove to be my Rosebud. The key to the Hunt mystery. But does Kapstein still live? Will he talk? Or is he afraid? I daydream. “Hunt…E. Howard Hunt…ah, yes. Sit down, Mr.…uh, Bozell? Forgive me…this last stroke seems to have…. Where were we? Howie. Yes. I must tell you something of the Kapstein creative writing method. I require the tyro pen-man to copy out in long hand some acknowledged world masterpiece. Howie copied out—if memory serves—Of Human Bondage.”
But until the Kapstein Connection is made, I must search the public record for clues. The dust jacket of H.H.’s first novel tells us that he became a naval ensign in May, 1941. “There followed many months of active duty at sea on a destroyer, on the North Atlantic patrol, protecting the life-line to embattled England….” That’s more like it. My eyes shut: the sea. A cold foggy day. Slender, virile H.H. arrives (by kayak?) at a secret rendezvous with a British battleship. On the bridge is Admiral Sir Leslie Charteris, K.C.B.: it’s Walter Pidgeon, of course. “Thank God, you got through. I never thought it possible. There’s someone particularly wants to thank you.” Then out of the swirling fog steps a short burly figure; the face is truculent yet somehow indomitable (no, it’s not Norman Mailer). In one powerful hand he holds a thick cigar. When He speaks, the voice is the very voice of human freedom and, yes, dignity. “Ensign Hunt, seldom in the annals of our island story has this our embattled yet still mightily sceptered realm owed to but one man….”
H.H. is a daydreamer and like all great dreamers (I think particularly of Edgar Rice Burroughs) he stirs one’s own inner theater into productions of the most lurid sort, serials from which dull fact must be rigorously excluded—like the Random House blurb? “In February, 1942, Howard Hunt was detached from his ship and sent to Boston.” Now if the dates given on the jacket are accurate, he served as an ensign for no more than nine months. So how many of those nine months could he have spent protecting England’s embattled life-line? H.H.’s naval career ends when he is “sent to Boston, to take treatment for an injury in a naval hospital.” This is worthy of the Great Anti-Semanticist Nixon himself. Did H.H. slip a disk while taking a cholera shot down in the dispensary? Who’s Who merely records: “Served with USNR, 1940-42.”
I turn for information to Mr. Tad Szulc, H.H.’s principal biographer and an invaluable source of reference. According to Mr. Szulc, H.H. worked for the next two years “as a movie script writer and, briefly, as a war correspondent in the Pacific.” Who’s Who corroborates: “Movie script writer, editor March of Time (1942-43); war corr. Life mag. 1942.” Yet one wonders what movies he wrote and what stories he filed, and from where.
Limit of Darkness (Random House, 1944) was written during this period. H.H.’s second novel is concerned with a naval air squadron on Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Was H.H. actually on Guadalcanal or did he use as source book Ira Wolfert’s just published Battle for the Solomons? Possible clue: the character of war correspondent Francis X. O’Bannon…not at first glance a surrogate for H.H. who never casts himself in his books as anything but a Wasp. O’Bannon is everything H.H. detests—a low-class papist vulgarian who is also—what else?—“unhealthily fat and his jowls were pasty.” The author contrasts him most unfavorably with the gallant Wasps to whom he dedicates the novel: “The Men Who Flew from Henderson.”
They are incredibly fine, these young chaps. They ought to be with names like McRae, Cordell, Forsyth, Lambert, Lewis, Griffin, Sampson, Vaughan, Scott—not a nigger, faggot, kike, or wop in the outfit. Just real guys who say real true simple things like “a guy who’s fighting just to get back to the States is only half fighting….” A love scene: ” ‘Oh, Ben, if it only would stop.’ She put her face into the hollow of his shoulder. ‘No,’ he said…. ‘We haven’t killed enough of them yet or burned their cities or bombed them to hell the way we must. When I put away my wings I want it to be for good—not just for a few years.’ ” A key motif in the H.H. oeuvre: the enemy must be defeated once and for all so that man can live at peace with himself in a world where United Fruit and ITT know what’s best not only for their stockholders but for their customers as well.
An academic critic would doubtless make something of the fact that since the only bad guy in the book is a fat, pasty Catholic newspaperman, H.H. might well be reproaching himself for not having flown with the golden gallant guys who gave so much of themselves for freedom, to get the job done. In their numinous company, H.H. may very well have felt like an overweight Catholic—and all because of that mysterious accident in the naval hospital; in its way so like Henry James’s often alluded to but never precisely by the Master named disability which turned out to have been—after years of patient literary detective work—chronic constipation. Academic critics are not always wrong.
The actual writing of Limit of Darkness is not at all bad; it is not at all good either. H.H. demonstrates the way a whole generation of writers ordered words upon the page in imitation of what they took to be Hemingway’s technique. At best Hemingway was an artful, careful writer who took a good deal of trouble to master scenes of action—the hardest kind of writing to do, while his dialogue looks most attractive on the page. Yet unwary imitators are apt to find themselves (as in Limit of Darkness) slipping into aimless redundancies. Wanting to Hemingwayize the actual cadences of Wasp speech as spoken by young fliers, H.H. so stylizes their voices that one character blends with another. Although Hemingway worked with pasteboard cutouts, too, he was cunning enough to set his dolls against most stylishly rendered landscapes; he also gave them vivid things to do: the duck that got shot was always a real duck that really got shot. Finally, the Hemingway trick of repeating key nouns and proper names is simply not possible for other writers—as ten thousand novels (including some of Hemingway’s own) testify.
In H.H.’s early books, which won for him a coveted (by Capote and me) Guggenheim grant, there is a certain amount of solemnity if not seriousness. The early H.H. liked to quote from high-toned writers like Pliny and Louis MacNeice as well as from that echt American Wasp William Cullen Bryant—whose radical politics would have shocked H.H. had he but known. But then I suspect the quotations are not from H.H.’s wide reading of world literature but from brief random inspections of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
H.H.’s fliers are conservative lads who don’t think much of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. They fight to get the job done. That’s all. Old Glory. H.H. is plainly dotty about the Wasp aristocracy. One of the characters in Limit of Darkness is almost unhinged when he learns that a girl he has met went to Ethel Walker. Had H.H. not chosen a life of adventure I think he might have made a good second string to O’Hara’s second string to Hemingway. H.H. has the O’Hara sense of irredeemable social inferiority which takes the place for so many Irish-American writers of original sin; he also shares O’Hara’s pleasure in listing the better brand names of this world. Even on Guadalcanal we are told of a pipe tobacco from “a rather good New Zealand leaf.”
By 1943 H.H. was a promising author. According to The New York Times, “East of Farewell was a fine realistic novel, without any doubt the best sea story of the war.” Without any doubt it was probably the only sea story of the war at that point but the Times has a style to maintain. Now a momentous change in the daydreamer’s life. With Limit of Darkness in the works at Random House, H.H. (according to Who’s Who) joined the USAF (1943-1946); and rose to the rank of first lieutenant. It would seem that despite “the injury in a naval hospital” our hero was again able to fight for human dignity, this time in the skies.
But according to Mr. Szulc what H.H. really joined was not the Air Force but the Office of Strategic Services, a cloak-and-dagger outfit whose clandestine activities probably did not appreciably lengthen the war. “As a cover, he was given the rank of Air Corps Lieutenant.” Mr. Szulc tells us that H.H. was sent to China to train guerrillas behind the Japanese lines. Curiously enough, I have not come across a Chinese setting in any of H.H.’s novels. Was he ever in China? One daydreams. ” ‘Lieutenant Hunt reporting for duty, General.’ The haggard face with the luminous strange eyes stared at him through the tangled vines. ‘Lieutenant Hunt?’ Wingate’s voice was shrill with awe. ‘Until today, no man has ever hacked his way through that living wall of slant-eyed Japanese flesh….’ ”